Most people know about the antioxidant properties of dark chocolate. Cacao, the source of chocolate, also has antibacterial agents that may help reduce tooth decay.

With all the positive information coming out these days about the health benefits of chocolate, one should be sure to have a daily dose of this delectable treat. While doing chocolate research, it is delightful to find that a guilty pleasure becomes like a magical food, with a number of health and wellness benefits. Once it becomes a guilt-free treat, it seems worth taking the indulgent bite to reap even a few of its amazing benefits. 

Most people have heard in the news that dark chocolate has antioxidant powers, but they may not know that cacao, the source of chocolate, also has antibacterial agents that may reduce tooth decay. Even better, the smell of chocolate can increase brain waves and help relax the body. Maybe that is why cocoa powder and chocolate body scrubs are all the rage at upscale spas around the country--making one smarter while basking in the scent of sweet chocolate. So, when patrons of beauty salons relax while being dipped in chocolate, they should also nibble on a little of the same, as chocolate contains phenyl ethylamine--a mild mood elevator. The list of chocolate’s benefits goes on and on, but one favorite is that men who eat chocolate live longer. Ladies should share that box of gourmet chocolates with their guys--with flavors that might pique their mood.

Chocolate flavorings and concepts are all the rage, from body scrubs and perfumes to chocolate-inspired martini flavors. @iSTOCKPHOTO/James Camp

Bacon is something men usually crave. Vosges Haut-Chocolate, based in Chicago, combines exotic infusions of rare spices and flavors with premium chocolate to layer the chocolate experience and test the taste buds. The shop has an intriguing milk chocolate bar infused with Alderwood-smoked bacon and smoked sea salt. It is quite different, and the flavors really work together. Bring a box of those to the next Sunday football party, and score a touchdown with the best dessert!

Many love the personal indulgence of cheese flavors, and Vosges Haut-Chocolate has an Italian collection that includes an abstractly shaped truffle called The Rooster. It is made with Taleggio cheese, organic walnuts, Tahitian vanilla beans and bittersweet chocolate. The natural saltiness in the cheese enhances the chocolate ganache--just like an old-fashioned pretzel stick dipped in chocolate brings out the best in both the pretzel and the chocolate. These flavors may initially surprise, but the building blocks of flavors are traditional in savory cooking. Balancing sweet, acid and salt is key to any successful dish. 

Latin American flavors and concepts are as hot as ever. Many love chocolate and caramel, so why not combine the traditional Argentine dulce de leche with chocolate for a Latin American-inspired truffle?  The Mayans first used chocolate in a drink by crushing cacao beans and mixing with water, chilis and Mexican vanilla. This beverage was reserved for special ceremonies. Vosges’ Aztec collection revisits these roots of chocolate in Mexico with on-trend flavors like spicy ancho chilis with Mexican vanilla. One can even try a corn tortilla chip dipped in chocolate and finished with a dusting of chili powder--a gourmet take on potato chips with chocolate.

Latin American flavors are as hot as ever. A combination of traditional Argentine dulce de leche can be combined with chocolate for a Latin American-inspired truffle. Other on-trend flavors use spicy ancho chilis and Mexican vanilla. @ISTOCKPHOTO

While these may not be the chocolate combinations seen every day, they are representative of the direction in which chocolate is going. Hershey’s chocolate bars used to be what everyone thought of when they heard the word chocolate. Now, there is a huge spectrum of chocolate varieties available to fit everyone’s palate. Chocolate is as complex as wine, and tasting it can follow many of the same rules. Try tasting three dark gourmet chocolates, side by side: Valrhona, Callebaut and Scharffenberger. They are as different as three pinot noirs. Their bouquet (or aroma), mouthfeel and flavor are distinct. Scharffenberger is the most complex--like a full-bodied red that continues to open up as it melts in the mouth. Valrhona is dark and very smooth, and Callebaut has a versatile, milder flavor. Specialty companies even refer to their exotic bars from around the equator as Grand Crus.

A trip to the store can be like embarking on a tropical vacation. The cacao tree only grows within 15 degrees of the equator, and it requires constant warmth and rainfall. Think of this shopping trip as a gourmand vacation that brings you to exotic regions like Venezuela, Ecuador, Java and Madagascar. Hershey’s Cacao Reserve line even has signature and single-origin chocolate bars.

These trends and flavors are being incorporated into desserts around the country. Just as the savory side of the menu lists out the “organic and grass-fed” branding on a meal, keep an eye out for beautiful chocolate desserts that list out the brand and origin of the chocolate used. Taste the out-of-the-ordinary, but extraordinary, flavor combinations being used, and step outside the chocolate box to try a never-imagined combination. For all who crave a piece of chocolate at the end of the day because it lifts the mood--go ahead and indulge the senses!